JNF Wire: Campus Moments - History Comes Alive for American Teens in Israel
October 5, 2016
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
JNF WIRE: CAMPUS MOMENTS—HISTORY COMES ALIVE
FOR AMERICAN TEENS IN ISRAEL
By: Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod
Students from AMHSI-JNF at the archaeological site in Megiddo.
To many people, history class in high school is a passing thought, if not an obstacle on the way to graduation, often crammed in and quickly forgotten. But not for students spending a semester at Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF). At this one-of-kind study abroad high school, students from around the world come to Israel and soak up the history of the ancient Near East, rattling off facts about King Solomon, the Prophet Elijah, and King Ahab as easily as they’d list the hit summer pop songs.
Recently, AMHSI students came to Megiddo, the one-time capital of the Galilee, in Northern Israel. This ancient city—that long ago thrived—now lays in ruins, but its unique convergence of history and geography remains central to understanding the area. So many battles have been fought there that it is considered by many Christians to be the site of one of the battles of the End of Days. Its name in English? Armageddon, from the Hebrew words Har Megiddo [Mount Megiddo].
“In a classroom, you can learn about the battles fought at Megiddo and what happened here,” says Ethan Seder, 17, from Berkeley, California. “But when you’re actually standing there and you look around and you see the valley in front of you, the water source and how all these factors come together—you understand better and it makes it that much more real.”
There’s no shortage of archaeological sites in Israel. But at AMHSI, staff often choose little-known archeological sites that will make a lasting impression, driving home history lessons that touch the senses like no other.
“This program takes you off the beaten path,” says Seder, who is on his fourth visit to Israel, said. “All the trips I went on in the past have been very touristy. You can go to Ein Gedi at the Dead Sea or to the Kotel in Jerusalem, but they’re designed to cater to vacationers and pilgrims. With AMHSI, you can close your eyes and picture yourself back in time, in that location. You’re able to see it and experience it; you can connect to the text in a way that otherwise just wouldn’t be possible.”
Allison Siegel, 16, from Denver, Colorado, was surprised on the group’s first field trip to the ancient Canaanite city of Tel Gezer: “I’d always thought I knew Israel and its archaeological sites really well, but this visit was completely different. Tel Gezer was a Canaanite village, and later on it was conquered by the ancient Israelites. When we arrived at the site, it was completely empty—no tourists taking pictures, just us there learning.”
Crouched beside the ruins of an ancient Israelite gate at Megiddo, AMHSI educator Aubrey Isaacs weaves tales—with a hint of her Scottish accent—of King Solomon’s wisdom and debauchery, including his many wives and concubines, prompting chuckles from more than a few of the students.
Isaacs, like the rest of the school staff, is betting that the kids won’t forget what they’ve learned once they get home. “Our program is a game-changer,” says AMHSI Co-Executive Director Leor Sinai. “They’re never going to forget, because they’re living it, they’re experiencing it.” Since 2013, AMHSI has been supported by Jewish National Fund (JNF), with the goal of promoting Zionism among North American high school teens. JNF also provides fellowships so deserving students can attend AMSHI for free.
Rachel Selvin, 17, from Brookline, Massachusetts, said this is the longest she’s spent away from home. “I knew I wanted to spend time abroad during high school,” Selvin said. “It wasn’t about résumé padding for college, but more about gaining self-knowledge and self-advocacy, being able to be on my own and taking responsibility.”
Like Seder, Selvin had visited Israel before. “I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere but in Israel.” However, not all her friends approved of her choice in studying and living in Israel. “Some people were definitely critical. My high school is a very hyper-liberal place, so there are a lot of disparaging and critical remarks made about Israel and the conflict around my school. But people were not necessarily surprised because I’ve always been a vocal and adamant supporter of Israel.”
Like Selvin, Siegel, too, encountered disapproval from relatives over coming to Israel. “They were like, ‘Are you sure you really want to go for a semester to Israel? Do you know what’s going on over there?’ And I said, ‘I do know what’s going on. It’s okay. I love Israel.’” Siegel said that she fell in love with the country during a six-week intensive Hebrew program she attended last year. “I felt like six weeks wasn’t enough time to really get to know Israel’s history and the culture.”
For Siegel, the fact that places like Megiddo and Tel Gezer are off the beaten path is a big plus of the AMHSI program. “The places we get to explore are really cool; it’s such a unique educational experience.”
But AMHSI isn’t just about history. Students connect with modern Israeli culture, attend concerts and participate in sporting and nature events— such as the Yam to Yam hike, a hike across the country from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee.
Shoshana Altman, 16, from Plymouth, Minnesota, is visiting Israel for the first time during her semester with AMHSI. “It’s a great experience,” she said. “It shows you a little bit of everything.”
Selvin agrees with Altman. “It doesn’t feel like I’ve been here for only 10 days. Each day has been so jam-packed.” What has stood out for her so far? “One moment that was especially powerful was when our entire group came together, stood on a promenade overlooking Jerusalem, and we sang the famous song, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav [Jerusalem of Gold]. While we were singing, I thought, ‘So many people have dreamed of being here and doing this.’ It was such a beautiful moment.”
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